Stepping out of the director’s car and into my one-bedroom apartment was like stepping off a spaceship into the international space station—the room was small, the setting was disproportionately unfamiliar, and all the labels and signs were in different languages. I’ll admit to having a serious emotional breakdown mere seconds after Jacob, the head man at the hagwon where I’d be teaching, had finished explaining how to turn on the hot water and departed. In a kind of viscous panic, I wandered out into the streets in search of a phone booth to call home.
The landscape was alien. A light drizzle was falling, but the air was stiflingly warm. The streets were narrow, crooked, uneven, and tilted. Miniscule cars and noisy scooters splashed by. Most windows were dark, except for a few restaurants and bars. Men with hard, lined faces smoked in doorways. I went up one street and down another, doubling back, wandering here and there, in search of a phone or a PC room, one of the ubiquitous pay-by-the-hour computer labs on every street corner in Korea. Nearly defeated, I was on my way back toward my apartment when one of the smokers asked me if I needed help—in English. Prepared for any sort of gamble, I said yes. He directed me to a PC room just a few blocks away.
Soon, things began to even themselves out. The summer passed and the muggy climate mellowed. I acquired the Internet and a land line in my apartment, and by trial and error, filled my refrigerator and cupboards with comestible food. I taught myself the Korean alphabet and could travel more expertly by ferry or bus. Most importantly, however, I got to know the island.
Geoje-do is right off the map by average Korean standards. It’s about as far from Seoul as it’s possible to get, geographically and culturally, in a province known for a harsher dialect and a more rural way of life. Here, more than anywhere else, are the growing pains of an Asian nation revealed. Korea is desperately trying to enter the global market and compete in the big leagues, while projecting itself as an in-style, edgy cultural forerunner with its boy bands, TV dramas and electronic whiz-bang.
At the same time, it remains proud of its ancient roots and seeks to preserve its icons while simultaneously attempting to streamline its culture. That is readily apparent in Gohyeon. Here, I saw wizened old ladies, bent into right angles from years of crouching on their haunches, installed on the sidewalk and cutting up homegrown vegetables or seafood to sell to passing pedestrians—not three feet from the bright, shiny façade of a Western department store like Polham or Clovis. I saw lanky young men, the rich sons of industrialists or businessmen, dressed in skin-tight tailored suits and leather loafers, whizzing down the highway in their imported Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs. Inches away was a small, misshapen patch of farmland squeezed between the highway and the river, where a weather-beaten old man in a plaid shirt, baseball cap, and threadbare white gloves was burning weeds plucked away from his cabbages and green onions.
None of Gohyeon’s charm comes through in the first minute, the first week, or the first month. Only after a season or two does it begin to trickle down. Only then could I notice the contrast between the hamburgers at Lotteria (the big Korean burger chain) and good homemade bebimbap at the corner restaurant. Only then did I perceive the old-fashioned courtesy of pedestrians and the homicidal carelessness of drivers. Only then did I hear Korean traditional music being played in a shop by an elderly storekeeper, while across the street his grandchildren blasted aliens to pieces in a PC room. It’s a nation of contrasts, but a worthy explorer’s paradise.
Andrew Timothy Post recently graduated from North Dakota State University in December, 2007, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is currently making plans to head to Anchorage, Alaska, where he hopes to continue publishing articles and work in radio. He will also acquire a commercial pilot’s license and legitimize his travels around the world with his own international air service. He enjoys reading, racquetball, and anything flight-related.